Glitches slow Chicago transit e-fare system

The city of Chicago has a less-than-stellar track record in rolling out public transportation technologies. In 2008, residents were up in arms when the city’s 16,000 pricey new 

electronic parking meters had trouble accepting hard currency and started issuing tickets instead. 

Now Chicagoans are upset again, this time over the launch of Ventra, the city’s new electronic “open fare” public transportation payment system. With Ventra, train and bus riders can purchase fares using a Ventra card or any other credit card equipped with “contactless” technology. 

The smart cards, which contain a radio-frequency identification antenna, a computer chip and a magnetic strip, are designed to be tapped and authenticated at fare readers in 2.5 seconds, according to a Chicago Tribune report. Every five minutes the system updates every reader on all of the city’s 1,800 buses and 145 rail stations. 

But since the launch of the system in September, riders have encountered one snag after another, including problems activating the cards, overcharges and poor customer service. 

The latest headache for the Chicago Transit Authority involved the discovery that electronic I.D. cards not affiliated with the Ventra program could be used to get through the fare readers at CTA station turnstiles. 

The glitch turned up when an Environmental Protection Agency employee was cleared through CTA turnstiles after inadvertently swiping her federal ID card on the fare reader instead of the Ventra card, according to the newspaper. 

Other Ventra users have reported that they have been able to use their Ventra cards to board buses and trains even though they had negative balances on their accounts. In one case, a rider was able to take 120 rides with a negative balance on his card, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.  

The CTA also said 15,000 passengers got free rides at 60 rail stations during the Nov. 13 evening rush hour.

Finally, Ventra has created problems for “wallet slappers” —  passengers who just tap their wallets on the fare readers. It turns out the charge gets applied to the nearest contactless card –  not necessarily the card designated for Ventra, according to the Tribune, which reported that local banks have heard from hundreds of passengers who want the charges removed from their RFID-enabled bank cards.

Despite Chicago woes, other metropolitan system around the country are reporting success with new automated public transportation fare systems, including the Dallas Area Rapid Transit System, whose GoPass contains a trip planner powered by Google Transit.  And Portland, Ore., recently unveiled its new mobile ticketing app TriMet, which enables riders to use mobile payments for all modes of public transportation.

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